Of Desire and Vulnerability: Notes on the substance and form of The Art of Daring

Notes on the substance and form of The Art of Daring:
Risk, Restlessness, Imagination
, by Carl Phillips
Graywolf, 2014

In his new book, Carl Phillips presents his poetics of restlessness, risk, and vulnerability. He explains that the poet “transforms experience so that our assumptions about a given experience can be disturbed, and accordingly, our thinking about the experience might be at once made more complicated, deeper, richer.” This is contrary to so many accepted ideas regarding what art/poetry should do. Forget holding a mirror up to nature. The idea is to resist our understandable urge to label and contain experience, and instead embrace that which is complex, unresolved, and intractable.

Nor is the poem “a momentary stay against confusion,” Frost’s formulation of what we might call the Shield Theory of Poetry. Quite the opposite. Dissatisfied with the given—“the usual trappings of a life,” Phillips stipulates—the poet is restless (hence the subtitle of the book). This restlessness ranges from sexual hunger to a metaphysical desire for the absolute. According to Phillips, “The artist refuses to ignore [restlessness] or perhaps more accurately the artist is incapable of ignoring it, because of a commitment to a knowledge that is absolute, entire, and at last elusive.“

Note that “elusive”: like Tantalus, we never find satisfaction. I think of Emmanuel Levinas’s definition of desire, which he contrasts with need: needs can be fulfilled; desire, on the other hand, “is never satisfied… it feeds on its own hunger.” Longing and striving to attain an impossible absolute, the poet is exposed, vulnerable. But, Phillips explains, “vulnerability is a place of possible nourishment… the impulse is not to shun the unknown, but to offer the self up to it: for a chance to know the self more fully.”

The poem occurs in this open, unanticipated, vulnerable space, where the poet strains for what is forever out of reach: “Each poem is at once the evidence of having made the attempt, and the enactment of that attempt. It is also …our contribution to the long tradition of those who have made the same attempt and the same failure to resolve the unresolvable.” The poem is not a “stay” of any sort: it honors unresolvable difficulties, allowing conflicting ideas and images to “resonate”***: to sound off each other without coming to consonance. As a result, the reader experiences a similar “disturbance”—an unsettling of his understanding of the world—and discovers a more complicated, deeper, richer view of the poem’s subject(s).

(I appreciate that Phillips acknowledges that concepts of contradiction and lack of closure may sound like po-mo cliches. His point is that anything that matters deeply to us is necessarily like us, that is, at odds with itself and resistant to any attempt to pin it down.)

Which brings me to the fascinating form and structure of The Art of Daring. This is a highly personal book; the stakes are clearly Phillips’s own. Appropriate to its subject, this book feels like “the enactment of [an] attempt” to formulate a personal poetics. Likewise, when Phillips discusses poems—those of others or his own—he reads with an eye toward the places where a poem resists resolution, and he explores them fearlessly, without feeling the need to answer every question or to resolve irreconcilable readings. More often than not, Phillips’s readings end with him asking a question to which he has no answer.

With regard to the poems Phillips discusses—from Louise Bogan, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, W. S. Merwin, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Robert Duncan, Lorine Niedecker, Alkman, Muriel Rukeyser, et al— they touch on the same themes or images with striking regularity: darkness, night, shadow, sea, and sky come up repeatedly; as images of distance, expansiveness, mystery, and yes, restlessness, it’s not hard to see why. These images are countered with those of sleep, rest, and dreams. The cumulative effect is indeed a kind of resonance, so that the images remain rich and changing, and cannot be reduced to mere symbols. The book is an instance of its own poetics.

Finally, one image appears four times, scattered equally throughout the book, first in a poem by Bogan, then in one by Herbert, then Gunn, and finally Phillips himself: stars. Points of reference that help us navigate the unknown. But Phillips’s own poem, cited near the end of the book, complicates such a simplistic reading:

… the stars did
what they do, mostly: looked unbudging, transfixed,
like cattle asleep in the black pasture, all the restlessness
torn out of them, away, done with. I turn beneath them.
—from “Heaven and Earth”

***My hunch: Phillips’s understanding of resonance is derived from Robert Duncan. See Duncan’s essay, “Towards an Open Universe” in Fictive Certainties.


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